Weekend rewind: Jason Richards – Part 1

Jason Richards tragically left us 10 years ago last December. In remembrance of Jason, we revisit a chat where the New Zealander discussed his career and massive Supercars crash at Queensland Raceway.

Originally published: January 2010

Interview: Darren House

Photos: Holden Motorsport

Auto Parts and Equipment: You had your career mapped out from an early age.

Jason Richards: I started in karting when I was eight years old and continued in it for eight years. I had a very successful time in karting. By the time I was 10 all I wanted to do was race cars full-time and I set my sights on Formula 1. I was a very focussed young kid who wanted to go motor racing. That was my dream. I didn’t achieve F1, but I did become a professional driver.

You made it to the UK, too.

As I moved into cars I slowly faded out of karting, and I packed up and went on my own to the UK to race cars. I met my wife, Charlotte, there.

I was about 17 when I moved, so that shows my dedication. It was nerve-racking because I only had about 500 quid in my pocket.

The year didn’t pan out the way I expected it to; I expected to run some British Formula Ford Championship rounds, but I only managed a couple of low-level races. The guy who was funding it had a falling out with his business partner, so I decided to get myself a job elsewhere. I managed to get a job at Swift, which was manufacturing Formula Fords back then. I was just running errands and I ended up doing a bit of racing for them, but I needed funding. Nothing I had done in New Zealand was recognised. I was starting from scratch, so I decided to get a manufacturer on board.

I quickly saw the guys I was competing against were very wealthy European drivers and I realised I needed to be aligned with a manufacturer because manufacturers just want the best performing driver, and they will pay for them.

I saw the British Touring Car Championship go from strength to strength, so I decided to come back to New Zealand and managed to do a deal with BMW there as a junior driver. I got my first pay cheque for racing cars at the age of 18, so that was a cool time, but I was hoping to ride off the back of BMW and maybe go to Germany and then go F1 through the backdoor. Unfortunately, [BMW] got out of touring cars to get into F1.

I left a comfortable job with a comfortable team to go for a high-risk option and it worked.

How did you find your way into Australian V8 Supercars?

I did five years of BMW in the 2-litre touring car championship in the mid-’90s and it was a strong series but towards the end of the ’90s the 2-litres were dying, and the V8 Supercars were taking off. It was probably 1999 when I first tried to get a drive at Bathurst in a V8; that didn’t happen, but Team Kiwi was formed. I had done five years with BMW, and it didn’t look like I was going to get an opportunity overseas, so I thought I will finish here and put my hat into the ring to do the Team Kiwi gig. It was a high-risk situation in my mind. It was just a ‘piece of paper’ team at that stage, so I wasn’t confident it was going to happen. But any young person has to make some big decisions in their life when they get to the crossroad, and I left a comfortable job with a comfortable team to go for a high-risk option and it worked, it broke me into the championship.

It didn’t look like much fun.

It was a tough two years and it taught me a lot – I had to be more involved in every aspect of the team but then I also missed a lot. I missed training and working with really experienced engineers in those foundation years because the whole team was inexperienced, particularly in V8 Supercars. But I learnt to fend for myself.

You then moved to the significantly better resourced Team Dynamik, but things didn’t get much better.

It had a lot of promise. I left Team Kiwi because Team Dynamik had an amazing workshop facility and had some great people working there. Malcolm Ramsay and Keiran Wills joined forces – I knew Keiran and [son and fellow team driver] Simon [Wills] back in New Zealand and Malcolm was very successful with his racing teams over here so it had all of the ingredients of success. They were out to do it properly and had a big spend. It was quite an amazing first six months.

We nearly won at Sandown and I think we finished fourth at Oran Park and we had quite a few good qualifying rounds, so I think we were breaking through. But at the same time there were a lot of problems going on behind the scenes, so I exited there at the end of 2003 and joined Tasman Motorsport.

How do you contrast those operations with your current team, Brad Jones Racing/Team BOC?

The teams are all quite different but also similar to some degree because there is a bit of a family bias to them. Team Kiwi was the only non-family team. [Team owner] David John wasn’t even really interested in motor racing; it was just a business for him.

Team Dynamik was owned by Keiran, and I was driving with his son, Simon and at Tasman, Greg [Murphy, son of Team Principal, Kevin] arrived, and he was part of the business structure. And, of course, I am now with the Jones brothers – Kim and Brad. It is a family team but neither of them is actively involved in driving.

Kim and Brad have been racers for a very long time. Their cars are like their children, and they don’t want for anything. They understand where to spend the money – you can spend a lot of money in areas that you think are going to give you a gain but quite often they don’t.

Overall, the teams have become more professional because the sport demands it.

Brad and Kim Jones are two of the sport’s true characters. What is it like working for them?

I knew them from the Super Touring days; our paths crossed for the first time in 1996. I was BMW and they were Audi, so I didn’t really get to meet them but over the years we developed a good relationship up and down pitlane. Kimmy reminded me that in 2003, at the back of the pits during a race meeting, he offered me a potential deal to drive with them, so I had a gut feeling that long-term, I was probably going to end up there.

My engineer from Tasman, Wally Storey, left that team in 2008 to go work for the Joneses and finally I went there too.

It was a bit nerve-racking because I am working for two brothers, and they are quite different personalities. I was most concerned about working under Brad because he is a recent race-car driver, and I just didn’t know if he was going to be the expert from the sidelines giving me all his advice. But, to be honest, he has been awesome for me. He doesn’t get involved in that stuff. He lets me do my thing and he genuinely appreciates how difficult a job it is. You just couldn’t get a better boss to work for.

“It exponentially went out of control. “With the centrifugal force, I could physically see stars.”

Your 2005 roll-over at Queensland Raceway was one of Australia’s biggest accidents. It looked horrendous from the outside. What was it like inside the car?

It was quite freaky because I watched Cameron McLean have the same crash the day before in a Porsche Carrera. The surprise element was quite amazing. I couldn’t believe his crash was happening because the car was going down the straight and it was rolling. It was a massive accident and I remember seeing it quite vividly. The very next day I was involved in exactly the same crash. It was probably the biggest crash since Craig Lowndes’ accident at Calder [in 1999].

I rolled in 2003 at Pukekohe so I had been through the whole experience. A roll over is pretty violent. It’s different to a crash. When you crash into a wall there is normally only one, maybe two impacts and it comes from the one direction. With a roll-over, each time the car touches the ground it could be on the roof, it could be on the wheels, it could be the left-hand quarter. It comes from all directions, and you get thrown around the car like you wouldn’t believe. With the centrifugal force, I could physically see stars.

I just couldn’t believe that was happening; I was dumfounded because moments earlier I had been going down the straight; I had just eased into the corner and passed Paul Morris and the next minute I am sideways. Normally it would just be a little spin, which would be disappointing because worst case scenario, you dump 10 places. You pluck another gear and away you go again, so I was disappointed at the spin stage. But it exponentially went out of control. In less than a second it went from a spin to hitting the kerb at 156km/h and I went from thinking ‘I can’t believe that’ to ‘Oh my God, this is going to me a monster’.

Then I became frightened for my life because the first major impact cracked my ribs, and I was in pain. Self-preservation kicked in – your neck is the most fragile part of your body in those types of accidents, so I grabbed hold of my helmet to try to keep my head attached to my shoulders and tried to pull myself into a ball. I also tucked my legs in, but the g-forces and impacts ripped them away from my control and my feet were smashed by the pedals. At that stage you just cry for your mummy, really [laughs]. I just rode it out and I was praying.

It went for a long time – it rolled about seven times. I was just praying it landed on its wheels because I knew I was in a bit of pain and getting out of these cars upside-down is really awkward and disorientating. It did land the right way up but there were no wheels for it to land on. Even the final landing was just as harsh, and it jolted my spine a bit.

And when it stopped, and you were alive?

It was a moment of reflection. I sat there for what felt like half an hour, but it was probably about three seconds. I vividly remember wiggling my toes to make sure they would work. I tried to radio the team, but nothing was working. I then needed an exit plan. My door wouldn’t work so I had to exit via the passenger door. The cool suit box that holds a 10kg block of iced had exited somewhere and it was lucky it didn’t hit me during the tumble because I think that would have given me a headache.

The car was on fire a little bit and it was still quite disorientating, but I just climbed out and stared in disbelief at how bad the car looked, and I was happy to be walking.

I was very fortunate to walk away that day with a cracked rib. It was pre-HANS device. I have had accidents since with the HANS and they are amazing – they really have improved safety.

The most ironic thing was right at the end of the day I get to the airport; Paul Morris and I were colleagues of makes and he rings me, and he goes, “G’day mate, how are you going?” I said, “I have had better days.” He said, “Hey what happened to you, did you hit that kerb” and I said, “Yeah, something like that”. He got a 60sec stop-go penalty or something and got to continue the race, so that ‘helped’ me a lot.

[Morris disputed the penalty, telling his crew over the radio, “It’s the most bullshit thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”]

On the positive side, the car was repaired, and we bounced back the very next week, qualifying third at Oran Park. We got back on the horse, the boys did a great job, and we were fast.

Did the accident affect your nerve?

Once those accidents happen and you lose your edge, I guess that is when retirement will come. The roll-over was a few years ago. Now I have two children under the age of two. While I think about my family, when I am in the car, I am still Jason the race car driver going as fast as I possibly can. You need so much concentration and focus with these cars. I jump in and my mind is focussed on the job. Negative factors don’t enter into it.

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Darren House

Darren House has been involved with motoring and motorsport media for more than four decades, working as a photographer, journalist, editor, public relations manager and marketing manager. He has produced material for numerous publications, including Auto Action, Chequered Flag, Motorsport News, Performance Street Car, Super Ford, Street Machine, Fast Fours & Rotaries, Hot Fours & Rotaries, Motorsport Legends and Truth Sport.

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